In the past few years, a new acronym has snuck into the discussion of Italian wine: UGA. It was relatively easy to miss until recently when Chianti Classico DOCG adopted UGAs, which are already beginning to appear on labels. In fact, UGAs have been around for some time, but were called by other terms. Here is a summary of what UGAs were, are, and are not.
The acronym UGA stands for unità geografica aggiuntiva (“additional geographical unit”)—in the plural unità geografiche aggiuntive—and it refers to a category of subdivisions within denominations that can be cited for labeling purposes. The term comes from the wording of the primary Italian wine law (No. 238), passed in 2016.
Before the 2016 law was written, several Italian denominations (DOPs, aka DOCs and DOCGs) had already begun defining subareas within their boundaries to highlight potential differences in style and give greater specificity to the wine’s place of origin. At first, these were legally designated as subzones, but those can be a bit complicated to get approved (more about subzones below), so the idea of subareas that weren’t technically subzones was born. Perhaps downplaying the significance of this maneuver, they gave these subdivisions the unassuming name of menzioni geografiche aggiuntive (“additional geographical mentions”), abbreviated MeGAs or sometimes MGAs.
The best-known MeGAs are those of Barbaresco DOCG and Barolo DOCG, which undertook a two-decade mapping effort of their existing vineyards under the hand of journalist and legendary cartographer Alessandro Masnaghetti and carved their denominations into 66 and 181 MeGAs, respectively (see a portion of the Barolo map above). Several other denominations make reference to menzioni geografiche aggiuntive in their disciplinare (governing rules), including Dogliani DOCG, Roero DOCG, and the four Verdicchio-only denominations in Marche.
MeGAs have not lost their status because of the 2016 law; they are now simply one of the terms used for what are collectively known as UGAs.
While MeGA became the most commonly used term for this kind of non-subzone subdivision, some denominations chose to employ other terms with more local or historic roots. These include:
Diano d’Alba DOCG took a slightly different tack with its preferred local term sorì. Its disciplinare breaks the denomination down into MeGAs, but then names each of the 75 subareas Sorì This and Sorì That…
Again, these categorizations have not lost their status and are now merely alternative regional terms for UGAs. And some denominations like Soave DOC adopted the UGA terminology right off the bat.
The 2016 wine law does not put many restrictions on how UGAs are defined, delineated, or administered. Essentially, the law says only that UGAs have to be smaller than the denomination, located within the same production area, and listed in a list. They can be separated by natural features such as streams or ridges or by manmade dividers like roads, the boundaries between towns, or historical areas. Once mapped out and approved, UGA names can be used by producers on the labels of wines made with grapes grown within that UGA. Note that UGAs can be defined only for DOCs and DOCGs, not for IGPs or outlying areas.
It is important to understand that UGAs are strictly geographical terms. They are not defined by or indicators of wine style or quality. Obviously, there are going to be some UGAs that contain the denomination’s best terroir or the top wine estates, but there is no hierarchy among the UGAs implied or guaranteed by the disciplinare.
Absolutely not—although from a consumer’s point of view, there’s not really that much difference. In the 2016 wine law, sottozone (subzones) and UGAs are two separate concepts, with subzones having more requirements for approval. For one, a subzone must “have environmental or traditionally known characteristics”—in other words, have a rationale for its existence beyond being a convenient slice of the denomination. Further, it has to “be regulated more strictly” than wines not claiming the subzone. In practice, this typically translates into something like having a slightly lower maximum yield per hectare or half a percent higher minimum alcohol. These factors could potentially lead to subzones producing wines a bit higher in quality than non-subzone (including UGA-labeled) wines of the same denomination.
Unlike UGAs, subzones also have the opportunity to be elevated to separate DOC or even DOCG status eventually. Canelli DOCG and Nizza DOCG are two recent examples of ex-subzones going out on their own. Because of this possibility, subzones are subject to closer scrutiny by the approving authorities—which could be a good reason denominations would choose not to go the subzone route.
Chianti Classico—which itself was one of the subzones of the Chianti denomination before it broke off and became an autonomous DOCG—opted for UGAs instead of subzones (and is very clear on making that distinction to educators, journalists, and other professionals). It may be that the challenge of getting a majority of growers to agree on whether and in what way to make the subdivisions stricter made UGAs a better fit at this time.
It is quite common to hear people refer to UGAs/MeGAs as crus, using the well-known French term, though the comparison is inexact and probably best avoided. Even within France, cru doesn’t mean the same thing in every wine region, but in the prominent example of Burgundy, it generally describes a single contiguous vineyard (potentially with multiple owners) of uniformly high quality.
In Italy, that definition works fine for a few of the MeGAs of Barbaresco and Barolo such as Cannubi. However, most UGAs/MeGAs are divided somewhat arbitrarily rather than by wine style differences. A lot of them are too large to be considered uniform and may contain numerous scattered vineyards with clear inconsistency of terroir and of output. Chianti Classico’s UGAs are much larger than previous subdivisions in other denominations; it is currently partitioned into 8 fragments, while Barolo at one-tenth its size has 181.